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First lady balances work, advocacy and campaigning

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
First lady balances work, advocacy and campaigning
Gov. Deval Patrick and wife Diane Patrick are pictured here dancing at last year’s Christmas Gala. (Photo: Tony Irving)

Four years ago, Diane Patrick was an enthusiastic participant in the campaign to make Deval Patrick the first black governor in Massachusetts history. She exchanged hugs and handshakes at spaghetti dinners, beauty parlors and parades, intent on telling voters about this unknown man, her husband, and why he should be their governor.  

November 2006 brought a heady victory — but the victor’s wife was headed for a fall.

The pressures of the long campaign and of assuming the first lady role while working as a partner at a prominent law firm took a toll on her, exacerbated by the growing awareness that everything about her and her family was now open to public scrutiny. Six weeks after the inauguration, Diane Patrick hit bottom, succumbing to a widely publicized bout of depression.

She reemerged after a month of rest and treatment, and resumed work.

That crisis, which she couldn’t easily keep private, made her an accidental spokesperson for mental health issues. She was even honored by the national Campaign for Mental Health Reform for her willingness to talk about her depression.

But during her tenure as first lady, Patrick has far more often chosen to address a different ill — domestic violence.

It, too, is an ill she knows firsthand.

“Thirty years ago I was in a terrible marriage … an extremely abusive relationship,” she told worshippers on a recent Sunday at Dorchester’s Greater Zion Church of God in Christ. She was invited to speak to the congregation as part of their annual Women’s Conference. “It took me to the lowest depths. I was afraid to get out,” she said.

Unlike many such tales, Patrick’s turns upward. She got out.

Living in Los Angeles after finishing Loyola Law School and beginning her legal career, she was trying to end the abusive marriage when a friend introduced her to a young lawyer who had come to L.A. from the East Coast for a one-year federal court clerkship.

That man was Deval Patrick. She credits him with a large part in helping her move her life forward.

“I couldn’t imagine a young man would find me, broken, and lift me up,” she told the church members, “and remind me that I had the strength and the voice to walk out of that relationship.”

They’ve now been married for 26 years, she announced, and her rapt audience rewarded her with a round of applause.

Dispelling myths

Mary Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition of sexual assault and domestic violence programs, said the first lady’s story is important to hear because it helps dispel myths about domestic violence victims.

“Diane was a young professional in a marriage with a batterer, and she continued to move forward professionally while still involved,” said Lauby. “And she was able to move away from the abuse, into not just another relationship, but a successful relationship.”

Patrick serves on the board of Jane Doe and is featured in a public service announcement the organization produced. She has appeared at hundreds of events spotlighting the issue, from vigils to award ceremonies to projects such as the Silent Witness Exhibit, for which she helped paint life-size wooden silhouettes representing men, women and children killed as a result of domestic violence.

Lauby can attest to the impact of Patrick’s advocacy work.

“I have been at events where Diane spoke, and people came up to me afterward to say they now understand in a different way what has gone on for them, or for a sibling,” Lauby said. “She is a gift to victims and survivors and families, and to our organization. She has made a tremendous difference.”

Author Randy Susan Meyers, who grew up in a home affected by domestic violence, saw Diane Patrick speak at a luncheon for Girls Inc. of Lynn last spring.

“Everybody in the room seemed very touched by her, because she reached so deeply into the personal,” said Meyers, who is also former assistant director of Common Purpose, a batterer intervention program. “It was a beautiful balance of self-revelation without self-pity.”

Telling personal stories goes a long way toward making the problem of domestic violence known, Meyers emphasized.

“There’s incredible shame about being a victim,” she said. “It’s very important that girls know that if they go through this, it’s not a life sentence to misery.”

The first lady’s guidance to girls she encounters is focused less on domestic violence per se than on valuing themselves. “If you don’t have strong self-esteem, you are ripe for someone exploiting you,” said Patrick, a former schoolteacher and mother of two grown daughters. “My message to my daughters and to all girls is not to let anyone else define them.”

An easier campaign?

With the governor’s re-election campaign heating up, the first lady talked about doing “almost everything” differently this time — setting priorities, defining limits and saying no.

“I’ve learned that I don’t have to please everybody,” she said, speaking last month in her office at the Boston law firm Ropes and Gray, where floor-to-ceiling windows provide a panoramic view of the Boston Harbor. “[Four years ago] I was under stress because I felt I had to be everywhere, do everything, please everybody. That’s part of my personality, but I have learned to say no.”

Still, noting a little disarray in her office, she explained that in preparation for the firm’s move this fall to the Prudential Tower, the lawyers were asked to start packing — and being a “goody two-shoes,” she was starting on it.

Patrick insists she has learned to put criticism of her husband and of her in perspective. But she is a news junkie, she said, and can’t turn away. She devours not only print and radio news, but also talk radio and online reader comments that verge on hateful.

After leaving work around 7:30 p.m., she’ll flip through stations on her car radio. “I’ll pause on this hate radio, hear them ranting about Deval, and sit there and listen to it,” she said, “and it’s awful.” Sometimes she has to stop herself from calling in to correct an “uninformed” host or caller, she confessed.

In some ways, the campaign is easier the second time. Four years ago, her challenge was to introduce her husband as a person. This time, she can talk about his record. The lawyer in her relishes this.

“Before, it was ‘Take my word for it.’ This time it’s ‘Here are the facts,’ ” she explained, starting to gesture with her hands, ready to list those facts.

She also finds public speaking somewhat easier now.

“Speaking in front of a crowd was not something that came naturally, and still doesn’t,” she said. “But you keep doing it, and eventually it becomes easier. I have a lot more comfort than I had four years ago.”

At the Dorchester church, the first lady betrayed no jitters. She looked poised and graceful on the drizzly, humid day in a black sleeveless dress, a shawl of burnt-orange covering her shoulders, and a necklace of large beads in a matching shade. With paper fans waving in the pews, she smiled in gratitude for the spirited welcome bestowed on her, and spoke with a clear, steady voice.

Later that same day she was in Melrose addressing a group of African-born women at a campaign fundraiser. She again described living under the hand of an abusive spouse, and breaking free. The story was even more poignant in this room, filled with women who come from strife-torn nations where speaking their minds could put them in danger.

The first lady’s narrative of rising above abuse merges naturally with promoting the man who was there for her.

“He gave me a voice,” she told the audience, “and now he’s a governor who helps people become empowered, just as he empowered me.”

After this speech, she mingled with the eager crowd, and later stepped back onstage to say goodbye. “You all are beautiful, in faces, dress and spirit,” she exclaimed, before expressing a wish to see a Patrick-Murray bumper sticker on every one of their cars.

Ten days earlier, sitting behind her work-filled desk in the relative calm of early August, Patrick had claimed she had no stump speech yet. But on this busy Sunday, still weeks before the unofficial start of the heated final stretch, the first lady seemed well on her way to ardent campaigning, round two.